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Loved like idols, canceled like demons
Navigating Korea's ruthless cancel culture, its triggers and unforgiving natureBy Song Seung-hyun
Published : Jan. 24, 2024 - 16:40
The news that actor Lee Sun-kyun was being investigated for allegations of illegal drug use broke out on Oct. 19.
Within days, Korean telecom giant SK Telecom pulled an advertisement featuring Lee and his wife. He was replaced by another actor in the drama series, "No Way Out," which was about to start shooting. The release of two of his films, which were in post-production at that time, became uncertain.
In short, Lee was "canceled" less than a week after the allegations were made public.
From then on, the actor disappeared from public view, except when he was made to appear in front of the media each of the three times he underwent a police interrogation. The fact that he tested negative for drugs multiple times throughout the monthslong investigation did little to sway public opinion that had turned cold on him.
What did change the tide was his death in an apparent suicide on Dec. 27.
The sudden passing of the “Parasite” star at the peak of his career sent shockwaves around the world, drawing attention to Korea’s intense cancel culture.
It is not a secret anymore that Korea’s pop culture scene places substantial demands on its celebrities – extending beyond their professional lives into their personal conduct as well. This situation compels them to train for many years before debuting and then afterwards, to maintain a positive public image and steer clear of controversies.
The rewards are evident, with stars often elevated to the status of idols.
However, the flip side is dark: when their flaws are exposed, the backlash can be severe, verging on ruthless.
The Chosun Ilbo newspaper's culture columnist Kim Do-hun highlights the role played by Korea's media in amplifying the effects of cancellation here, as illustrated by the sensationalized reporting of the Lee Sun-kyun case. He said the way Korean media covers its stars should change to align itself with global standards.
"Doing so isn't a negative development; it signifies that our entertainment industry has matured sufficiently to consider the reactions of audiences globally," Kim said.
However, pop culture critic Kim Hern-sik contends that attributing Lee's death solely to Korea's cancel culture overlooks systemic issues.
"In a country where the privacy of celebrities lacks proper legal protection, we shouldn't lay blame on the public," Kim said.
He pointed out that Lee's death mainly resulted from the police and media exposing celebrities' privacy too much.
"This is precisely why director Bong Joon-ho and the industry are advocating for the establishment of a relevant law," he emphasized.
In a rare joint press conference on Jan. 12, a group of cultural figures, led by award-winning "Parasite" director Bong, called for a law, provisionally called the Lee Sun-kyun Act, to safeguard the rights of artists.
Last week, an opposition lawmaker -- Rep. Joo Cheol-hyun of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea -- responded to their appeal, publicly expressing his support for such a bill. He said he would work to introduce a law that would hold investigative personnel legally accountable for leaks of investigative information.
In 2022, numerous foreign media outlets focused on how celebrity Song Ji-ah was canceled in Korea for wearing fake designer clothes on a Netflix show.
“She was canceled for wearing fake designer clothes -- barely considered a sin in the West, but it destroyed Song Ji-ah's career in her homeland,” the BBC reported at the time.
Like in Song's case, while cancel culture is prevalent worldwide, certain issues are particularly more sensitive in Korea, according to insiders in the advertising and entertainment industries.
"School bullying and drug use are currently the primary issues for us," shared an insider in the advertising industry here.
He explained further using the example that when creating an advertisement for a local conglomerate that featured nearly 50 child actors, his team had to check each actor for any involvement in school bullying issues.
"We made sure to scrutinize every child involved," he added.
Similar precautions are taken when casting for television shows, as the cancellation of a main cast member usually forces the production team to undertake additional work.
In the realm of TV productions, if an individual associated with social controversies makes an appearance, the production team typically finds itself in the position of having to re-edit every scene featuring the implicated star extensively.
One similar case occurred in 2021 when the production team of the SBS variety show "Delicious Rendezvous" had to eliminate segments featuring Korean actor Lee Na-eun due to bullying accusations involving her teammate.
"Contracts now often include provisions for compensation if (members of our) cast face social problems such as drug use or school bullying," mentioned an insider from the local variety show industry who asked to remain anonymous.
He further elaborated that with the increasing presence of ordinary people on shows, the industry is becoming more vigilant.
To mitigate potential risks, the variety show insider outlined the industry's comprehensive vetting process before casting anyone, which includes checking social media accounts and even reviewing livestreaming videos.
Before school bullying and drug use emerged as the two most feared triggers for a potential public backlash, draft dodging and drunk driving were common points of contention for the careers of Korean celebrities.
Draft dodging, in particular, used to have such a decisive effect on a star’s career, often causing irreparable damage, as seen in the cases of Steve Yoo and MC Mong.
Nowadays, Korea's male stars know very well not to mess with military service issues. The way the all-male group BTS has handled this matter is seen as a textbook example. All of BTS members are currently on hiatus from group activities to fulfill their mandatory military service.
Drunk driving, though less severe in degree, is still a trigger for getting canceled here.
Last year, public broadcaster MBC admitted to negligence and issued an apology for featuring vocalist Horan on prime-time TV show "King of Masked Singer."
This decision came after viewers protested on the official website of the show, criticizing the broadcaster for featuring a celebrity with a history of drunk driving.
Horan, 43, was found to be driving drunk in Gangnam, southern Seoul, in September 2016. Despite nearly seven years passing, the public seems to have difficulty giving her a second chance.
Lee Dong-gwi, a psychology professor at Yonsei University, sees Korea as a society sensitive to such flaws and quick to jump to conclusions. He adds that this characteristic is primarily due to accumulated "doubts" stemming from past experiences.
"Celebrities deliberately craft a certain positive image, and the public later discovers that it was fake. This recurring pattern among entertainers has led the public to hastily jump to conclusions," he said.
Lee added that it is important to acknowledge that each case can be different and to make judgments more carefully.
Getting a second chance is possible but challenging in Korea.
According to data analyzed by a local news outlet, among 30 entertainers involved in various controversies since 2010, the shortest duration required for a comeback was in cases of drunk driving or hit-and-runs, averaging 4.5 months.
For drug use, celebrities took an average of 14.5 months to make a comeback.
In cases of sexual offenses, it took more than 10 years for the star to return to public life.
Regarding issues related to mandatory military service, making a comeback is nearly impossible unless, as in the case of Psy. The singer was able to return only after re-enlisting and completing military service properly twice, after holding concerts during his first service term.
Culture critic Jung Duk-hyun emphasized that certain conditions must be met for a second chance to be earned. For instance, it's advisable for celebrities to take a sufficient break from work as a gesture of repentance for what they did. Also, they should avoid a high-profile return, such as launching a major project in the mainstream media, to demonstrate humility and self-reflection.
However, Jung added that the most important thing is the public's sentiment.
"For example, issues like school bullying or drug use are taken more seriously nowadays than before. The same goes for drunk driving. This social atmosphere is crucial," he added.
As Jung mentioned, since immediately returning to the mainstream media is difficult after controversy, the current trends among K-pop stars involve attempting a comeback by first appealing to overseas fans, while skipping Korean fans.
Last week, Choi Jong-hoon, formerly a member of the boyband FT Island, initiated a comeback by launching a new channel on Japan’s Fanicon platform after a five-year hiatus. He had been imprisoned for two years and six months for raping a woman in a hotel room in 2016 along with three other men.
Former K-pop star Park Yoo-chun also employed a similar strategy in 2020.
Meanwhile, YouTube celebrities usually follow a "six-month rule" for post-hiatus returns due to YouTube’s policy, which is to disable a channel's monetization if no new videos are posted after more than six months. This policy prompts most YouTubers to resume activity before this time frame elapses.
Netflix star Song, who temporarily left YouTube due to her appearance on the platform's show where she wore the luxury brand knockoffs, also resumed appearing on her channel around five months after the controversy.
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